"Do we have to do this?"
"Do we really, really have to do this?"
"Do our lives depend on it?"
"Well, Mai is the one who asked me, so, yes," Zuko says as he fixes his hair into a topknot, binding a golden headpiece over it and sticking a pin through the center. Sokka, not yet dressed, is sprawled out on his stomach next to Zuko on his bed. Sokka scowls, resting his chin on his arm. His hair is down, framing his face and feathering onto his forearms. Zuko bites his lip and tucks a strand behind Sokka's ear. "You don't like my friends?"
Sokka turns his head to see Zuko's slightly hurt face, and his expression softens. "It's not that, it's just..." Sokka sighs. "Well, I don't think your friends like me."
"What? How could you say that?" Sokka holds his breath when Zuko moves so he's straddling Sokka's back. Zuko relaxes his hands on his shoulder blades, pressing into the muscles gently. Sokka suppresses a smile as he hums.
"Mai calls me Water Boy."
"It's cute. You are Water Boy."
"Would you like being called Fire Boy?" Zuko smiles and leans forward to kiss Sokka's jaw. Sokka wonders if he can feel the hair on his neck stand up.
"If it were by you, yeah. Also, I think you have called me that before."
"That's beside the point."
Zuko leans back to run his fingers through Sokka's hair. Sokka sighs and closes his eyes. "What is the point, exactly?" Zuko asks.
"Mai doesn't like me, and she's terrifying. But, honestly, I think Ty Lee is even scarier."
"Can I braid your hair?" Zuko asks suddenly, hands halting. Sokka's mind goes blank.
"Where'd you learn to braid hair?"
"Katara. She showed me yesterday, after you got here." Sokka can hear the sheepishness in his voice. He moves his hand to squeeze Zuko's arm.
"Sure, baby. I'd love it."
Sokka rests his cheek on his arm. He feels Zuko separate strands of his hair, pushing the majority of it to one side of his head. He begins braiding. "Anyway, Mai hates everyone, and everyone thinks she's scary. It's my two favorite things about her." Zuko sighs fondly. "And how is Ty Lee scary?"
"She can block people's chi, and now she knows all the secret Kyoshi warrior moves. She has all that power but she's so cheery all the time. It's freaky. Plus, I think she used to have a crush on me." Zuko laughs, then sections off another part of Sokka's hair.
"So? Mai had a crush on me, too. Ty Lee is fine, that's just who she is. I think you'll find you have more in common with her than you think. You're both incredibly charming," Zuko says before placing another kiss on Sokka's jaw, then, "and cute." Sokka huffs, and Zuko goes back to work. "I trust Ty Lee, isn't that enough?"
Sokka doesn't answer, and instead says, "I just don't understand why we have to go on a double date, especially when it's their first date. That's so awkward, Zuko. And I'm only here for a week, I wanna spend time with just you."
"Whiny," Zuko teases. "I promise we can do whatever you want for the rest of the week. Even shopping." Sokka's eyebrow raises.
"Fine. But only because I love you."
"I love you, too." Zuko reaches the end of Sokka's hair. "Do you have a tie?" Sokka gives him the one around his wrist, and Zuko ties the braid into place. He smooths his hands over it delicately. "Done." To Sokka's disappointment, Zuko gets off his back and stands up. Sokka does too, taking note of Zuko's nervous face as he walks to the hanging mirror on the wall. "It's not very good," Zuko says quickly.
Sokka turns his head to find his hair sectioned into thirds, three separate braids joining into one at the end. The hair is tight and secure, but not uncomfortable. Sokka watches his own face light up, a blush forming on his cheeks. He turns around to Zuko's hopeful eyes. Sokka bridges the gap between them, putting his hands on Zuko's hips.
"It's amazing, sweetheart. I love it," Sokka says, leaning in to rest his head on Zuko's shoulder. Zuko pulls him in and kisses his forehead, then relaxes his cheek against Sokka's head.
"Good. Are you ready to get dressed?" Sokka groans and squeezes Zuko tightly, shaking his head profusely. "Come on," Zuko says, taking a step away. He cradles Sokka's cheek with one hand, and kisses him. Zuko's other hand is around his neck, and Sokka wonders if he can feel his racing pulse. Sokka puts his hands on Zuko's shoulders, stepping closer. Zuko boldly explores Sokka's mouth with his tongue. He bites Sokka's lower lip, and Sokka whimpers.
Zuko pulls away with an evil smile. "I'll make it up to you later. Okay?" Sokka nods, jaw slack.
"Okay, Fire Boy."
When they arrive at the noodle restaurant, Mai and Ty Lee are waiting for them in the foyer. They're standing close together, but it's clear they haven't been talking. Ty Lee's face lights up when she sees them, excitedly saying, "Sokka!" as she wraps her arms around his neck. Sokka makes a surprised sound, patting her shoulders.
"Hey, Ty Lee," he says, noticing Mai's stony expression.
"It's so good to see you, Sokka. Zuko!" Ty Lee moves on to hug Zuko next, leaving Sokka standing lamely in front of Mai. He holds out his arms awkwardly.
"You're late, Water Boy," Mai snaps. He scratches the back of his head as a poor save, then gulps.
"Mai," Zuko says quietly over Ty Lee's head. Mai rolls her eyes.
"I'm just joking." Mai's eyes narrow on Sokka. "Don't you think I'm funny?"
"Hilarious," Sokka says with a forced laugh. Ty Lee stands next to Mai again, and Sokka takes a step back toward Zuko. He grabs his hand immediately, letting out a shaky breath. Zuko coughs.
"Uh, shall we?" he asks, motioning Mai and Ty Lee to enter the restaurant with his free hand. When they're a few steps ahead, Zuko whispers, "It's okay. Relax."
"She's going to kill me," Sokka whispers back urgently. Mai's head snaps toward them, and she smiles. Sokka smiles nervously back, and lets go of Zuko's hand to wave. He looks at Zuko, who is grimacing. Real comforting, Sokka thinks as a waitress leads them to a four-person table. Zuko sits down first, and Mai sits next to him. Sokka slowly walks to the spot opposite Zuko, next to Ty Lee. Once they're all seated, the waitress laughs.
"You're sitting on the wrong sides!" she giggles.
"What are you talking about?" Mai asks, eyebrows knit together.
"You two," the waitress motions to Mai and Sokka, "should switch. It's not normally custom to sit on the same side as your date."
"You idiot, we're not—" May begins.
"She's right!" Sokka squeaks, eyes huge and terrified. Mai glares at him, then back at the waitress.
"Don't you know who he is?" Mai asks, pointing at Zuko. The waitress looks closely at him, then shakes her head.
"He's the Fire Lord."
"I don't really get into politics. Sorry," the waitress says with a shrug.
Mai points at Sokka. "And that's his—"
"You know, she's right," Zuko interrupts. "Stand up, Sokka." Ty Lee laughs bemusedly as Sokka practically jumps out of his chair. The waitress smiles and leaves. Mai stands up slowly, making sure the chair screeches across the floor dramatically. She angrily crosses her arms over her chest, eyes focused on Sokka as they switch seats.
Sokka sits down and scoots his chair closer to Zuko, muttering, "Thank you," as quietly as possible.
"That is so outdated," Mai says, her voice louder than usual. "Zuko overturned that law, anyway. Who does she think she is?"
"I think it's kind of sweet," Ty Lee says, touching Mai's shoulder. Mai's face is shocked for a moment. When Ty Lee takes her hand away, Mai looks at the table, her usual blank expression returning. "It's nice to sit next to your date, right guys?"
"Yeah, I agree," Sokka says, voice cracking a little.
"I also agree. I guess you're outnumbered, Mai," Zuko teases, earning a glare.
"Plus," Sokka says, "if you think about it, she thinks it's wrong to sit on the same side as your date, so really we're sticking it to her and she doesn't even know—"
"You don't have to keep rambling, it's fine," Mai snaps. Sokka grabs Zuko's hand. The table is quiet, save for Ty Lee's fingers drumming absentmindedly against the table.
"Sokka, I just love your hair," Ty Lee says finally.
"Thanks. Zuko did it, actually."
"Wow, really?" Ty Lee marvels, and Zuko smiles, then nods proudly. "You should braid my hair sometime, Zuko."
"Sure, Ty Lee."
"I can braid hair, too," Mai says, face impossible as ever to read. Ty Lee's smile falters, a pout replacing it. Sokka looks between them anxiously.
"So," he says, "what's everyone going to order?"
Mai's voice is practically acidic as she spits, "Well, it's a noodle restaurant, so probably noodles."
"Ha ha, right, right. Stupid question," Sokka says, his grip on Zuko's hand tightening. Zuko squeezes back.
"Sokka," Ty Lee says as she stands abruptly. "Do you want to come to the bathroom with me?"
"I...Don't you mean Mai?"
"I don't have to go, anyway," Mai says quickly. Sokka looks at Zuko, begging him to say something that makes sense. He's sorely disappointed.
"That's a good idea," Zuko says, giving Sokka a look that says, You better go.
Sokka glares at him and pulls his hand away, then says, "O-Okay." Sokka stands up slowly, and Ty Lee grabs his wrist. He remembers what he told Zuko about her being scary earlier, and his mouth goes dry. Sokka gets one good look at Zuko raising his hands questioningly at Mai before Ty Lee pulls him around a corner.
After the date, Zuko will tell Sokka about his and Mai's conversation, about how he asked her what her problem was, and how she admitted that she was nervous and lashed out unintentionally. To his complete surprise, Zuko will tell him that Mai even cried because she was scared this would ruin her relationship with Ty Lee, and that she worried she was too rough for her. Zuko will tell him about his comforting words to Mai, explaining how he was terrified he would ruin his relationship with Sokka, too, and how Sokka has only made him less rough over time. Sokka may or may not cry when Zuko tells him all this, but as it stands, he has bigger problems.
"Ty Lee, I'm pretty sure I'm not allowed in the girls' bathroom."
"Don't be silly, I don't actually have to go to the bathroom."
"You don't?" Sokka sits on the bench between the two restrooms.
"No!" Ty Lee says, beginning to pace. Sokka has never seen her look so distressed. "Going to the bathroom is clearly code that the girls need to talk."
"I'm not a—"
"I know, but the other girl is the one I'm on a date with, and I'm not sure I even want to talk to her right now." Ty Lee puts her hands on her hips, clearly angry. Sokka is unsure of what to say.
"I don't know what's up with Mai, considering she's kind of always like that."
"Not always," Ty Lee says defensively. Sokka puts his hands up. That clearly wasn't the right thing to say.
"Sure, sure, maybe it's just with me."
"Try not to take it personally, Mai is just very protective of Zuko. I am, too, but I can tell you're a kind person." A pang of guilt hits Sokka's chest.
"Thanks, Ty Lee. You, too." Ty Lee sits on the floor in front of Sokka, resting her knees flat and bending her torso forward. Her chin rests on her palms.
"Thank you, Sokka. What if it's me? What if I'm doing something wrong? I shouldn't have said I wanted Zuko to braid my hair, I know she's really good at braiding hair."
"I doubt that you did anything wrong. Tell me the story, when did she ask you out?" Ty Lee smiles.
"A couple of weeks ago. She came to see me after training and said you and Katara were visiting. She seemed off, but I couldn't tell what it was. She said you and Zuko wanted to get a meal with us, and I said that sounded fun. She got really quiet, then said she wanted it to be a date. At first I was confused, because I know she knows you're together, so she didn't mean with Zuko. Then I realized she wanted me to be her date, and I said yes."
"Okay, so what happened between then and now?" Sokka asks.
"Nothing, that's the thing," Ty Lee replies forlornly. "I've been busy with the Kyoshi warriors, and Mai's been busy with whatever she does, so this is the first time we've seen each other since."
"Did she pick you up for the date?"
Ty Lee nods. "I told her she looked beautiful, and she said I did, too. We walked here in silence, but that's not unusual with Mai. I tried to talk to her the whole time, but she just looked at the ground." Sokka laughs, and Ty Lee's face scrunches.
"I'm sorry. I'm not laughing at you. Mai and Zuko are just so similar; that's exactly how he was on our first date, too. I was the one who asked him, so the whole time I was scared he didn't even want to be there, that he was just taking pity on me. It was awkward and silent, but when it was over, I was so convinced he hated me, I started crying."
"Really?" Ty Lee asks, looking up at Sokka with sympathy.
"Yeah, it was embarrassing. But I put everything on the line, I was terrified that I ruined it. He cried, too, and said he was sorry. I think it kind of broke him out of his trance, and I kissed him. Turns out, he was just scared, too." Sokka smiles at her. "Mai's probably just scared like we were. How long have you been friends?"
"And how long have you wanted this?"
"Even longer," Ty Lee says softly, eyes glossy. Sokka reaches out for her hands, and she takes them.
"She probably did, too. Look at me and Zuko, we danced around this forever, and we were still so scared of it. If anything, it just shows how much you care about each other. Being careful with someone is an act of love." Ty Lee nods, one tear falling down her face, though she's smiling.
"Being careful with someone is an act of love," she repeats. Ty Lee kisses one of Sokka's hands, then stands up. Sokka stands, too, and she pulls him into a hug. This time, Sokka is accepting as he wraps his arms around her back. "Thank you, Sokka. I'm happy for you and Zuko."
"I appreciate that. I've got a good feeling about you and Mai." Sokka pulls away and begrudgingly asks, "Should we go back?" Ty Lee smiles.
"Yeah, let's go back." They begin walking, but Sokka stops.
"Wait," he says.
"I actually have to pee now," Sokka says, then walks into the men's restroom, Ty Lee's laughter following him.
Two hours and two bottles of wine later, they find themselves on one of the Fire Nation beaches, at the request of Ty Lee. When Sokka and Ty Lee returned to the table, they ordered the first bottle of wine, and Mai loosened up. After the first glass, she was making jokes (actually funny jokes, not terrifying ones at Sokka's expense), and even flirting with Ty Lee a bit. Sokka found himself having fun to his surprise, so when Ty Lee suggested they go to the beach, Sokka agreed.
They find a secluded area and Zuko offers to start a fire. "Sokka and I will look for wood," Mai says, and Sokka freezes up.
"Zuko, come watch me do cartwheels!" Ty Lee slurs, already midway through one. Zuko looks at Sokka with a smile and shrugs.
Mai grabs Sokka's arms, muttering, "Come on, Water Boy." She drags him toward a group of trees, and Sokka looks in the direction Zuko is disappearing.
"Zuko!" he yells after him, a high-pitched squeal. Mai swings him into a tree, and Sokka yelps.
"Will you relax? I'm not gonna hurt you," Mai says.
"Okay," Sokka says quickly. Mai takes a step toward him and he flinches.
"Listen, I'm...sorry, or whatever." Sokka blinks at her as she rolls her eyes. Her voice is defiant as she maintains, "I just want to talk."
Said every murderer ever, Sokka thinks. "We can talk," he says instead, because he really has no choice.
"You and Zuko have been together for awhile now, longer than him and I were. You bring out something of him that I wasn't able to, and he seems really happy with you. So, I guess, thank you for that." Mai moves closer to him and actually smiles, though it's small. "You can stand up."
Cautiously, Sokka stands, keeping his back to the tree. Mai takes another step so they're about a foot apart, and Sokka breathes a sigh of relief. Then, Mai pins his shoulder to the tree, moving her face close to his ear. Sokka gasps and considers screaming, but Mai says, "That being said, you make him happy, and if you take that away from him, I will take care of you personally. There aren't a lot of people I truly care about, but I love Zuko, and I can snap you like a twig." To demonstrate her point, Mai picks up a nearby branch and snaps it in two. Sokka gulps.
Mai throws the broken stick pieces over her shoulder. Sokka says carefully, "You don't have to worry about me. If I ever hurt Zuko, then I deserve whatever you do to me. I love him, too, and he's lucky to have you." Mai nods, seeming satisfied. She gives him a quick, unexpected hug, then pushes him away.
"Get off me." Mai scowls at Sokka, who visibly panics. She laughs, then says, "I'm messing with you." Sokka laughs halfheartedly, wiping his forehead in relief. "I'm glad we're on the same page, Sokka. Maybe I don't have to hate you."
"You're welcome," Mai says, then yawns. "Well, I'm gonna head back. You've got the firewood, right?" She turns and starts walking back toward Ty Lee and Zuko, leaving Sokka in shock.
"Well, not really—" he starts to call after her.
Before Sokka can get too angry, he notices Zuko walking toward him. Mai shoves him playfully as they pass each other. When he reaches Sokka, Zuko wraps him into an embrace. Sokka kisses his neck tenderly, Zuko's touch easing his nerves. "Thank you, darling," Zuko whispers. Sokka closes his eyes, wishing he could pause this moment. "She has a funny way of showing it, but Mai appreciates this. You did a lot for her, and me, tonight."
"It wasn't bad," Sokka says. "I had fun. I'm sorry I was so skeptical. Your friends are good people."
"Do you still think they're scary?"
"Oh, I think Mai is even scarier than I did before."
"How badly did she threaten you?"
"Nothing I can't handle," Sokka says, and Zuko laughs. "And I hate to say it, but you were right." Zuko's eyebrows raise, and Sokka swears he can see his head get a little bigger.
"Me and Ty Lee, we are pretty similar. What you failed to mention is how similar you and Mai are." Zuko rolls his eyes.
"I thought that was obvious."
"Hey!" Ty Lee yells from her spot on the sand. Even from far away, Sokka can see her and Mai are holding hands, and Mai is watching her face intently. Sokka smiles. "We're getting cold over here!"
"Be right there," Zuko shouts, pulling away from Sokka. As they start to gather wood, Sokka watches Ty Lee say something to Mai. Mai puts her hand on Ty Lee's cheek, then draws her in. They kiss slowly, moving closer. Sokka stops and elbows Zuko, who grins, then makes a shushing sound. Mai pulls away and smiles at Ty Lee. Sokka tries to remember if he's ever seen her teeth before.
Ty Lee kisses her again, positioning herself onto her knees in front of Mai. Sokka's heart soars. Once they gather enough firewood, Zuko and Sokka head back toward Mai and Ty Lee. They're lying on their backs, Ty Lee's head placed in the crook of Mai's neck. Mai has both arms around her, their faces relaxed, their eyes closed.
Zuko puts the wood down and brings it to life, enveloping it with flames. He sits down, his legs sprawled in front of him. He pats the space in front of him, and Sokka sits there. Zuko hugs Sokka from behind, and Sokka kisses his wrist. He sets back and relaxes into Zuko, whose grip is tight and comforting. Zuko props one of his knees up to make Sokka more comfortable, and Sokka drapes his arm over it.
They stay that way for a while. The crackling fire, periodic kisses, whispers, and gentle waves are the only sounds among them, until Ty Lee opens her eyes and proclaims, "We should dance!" She stands up swiftly. Sokka looks at Zuko, who shrugs. They stand up, too. Mai doesn't look so sure, but Ty Lee grabs her hand. "Please, Mai? Please? For me." She stands reluctantly, cheeks slightly pink, and wraps her arms around Ty Lee's waist. "Will you sing something? You have a beautiful voice, Mai," Ty Lee says with a huge grin. Mai begins singing a low Fire Nation tune, and they sway back and forth.
Sokka wraps his arms around Zuko's shoulders and they begin to move, too, Mai's rich voice washing over them. "Do you think we're that sickeningly cute?" Zuko asks Sokka quietly. Sokka laughs, but nods.
"Definitely." As they slowly rotate in a circle, Sokka catches Ty Lee's eyes. She grins at him, then blows him a kiss. Sokka smiles back and gives a thumbs up. When Zuko and Mai are facing each other, she reaches out to grab his hand. Zuko holds her hand and shakes it, an encouraging smile on his face. Thank you, Mai mouths to Zuko. Then, to Sokka, Water Boy. Sokka can't help but laugh, but he also can't help but flip Mai off, too. Now, the three of them are all giggling, interrupting Mai's song.
Ty Lee stops dancing and turns around. "What are you laughing at? Is it me?" She checks her outfit like she might see a bug. Sokka loops his arms Zuko's back, resting his hands on his chest and his chin on Zuko's shoulder.
"No," Mai says, and shakes her head. She takes Ty Lee's hand, and Ty Lee beams at her. Zuko yawns, throwing his head back against Sokka's neck.
"I hate to say it, but it's getting late," Zuko says. Sokka moves his arms from Zuko's shoulders as Ty Lee walks toward him. She hugs him again, and Sokka closes his eyes.
"Bye, Ty Lee."
"Goodbye, Sokka. Thank you." When she pulls away, tears are in her eyes. Sokka nods at her, and she goes to hug Zuko. Mai is right behind her, and without saying anything, she hugs Sokka, too. She doesn't push him away this time, thankfully, so Sokka squeezes her gently.
"Remember what we talked about," Mai murmurs, squeezing Sokka back.
"A little tight, Mai," Sokka says breathily.
"Right." Mai pulls away, and nods at Sokka with a smile. Finally, Mai hugs Zuko, and he whispers something unintelligible, causing her to erupt with laughter. Sokka looks at Ty Lee and rolls his eyes, earning a laugh from her, too.
"Will you ladies be able to get home safe?" Sokka asks. The look Mai gives him makes him recoil. "You're right, you're right. Sorry."
"Come on, dummy," Zuko says, pulling Sokka toward the trail to the palace.
"Bye!" Sokka yells behind him. The image of Ty Lee grinning, Mai glaring, and them holding hands slowly gets smaller. Sokka looks at Zuko.
"What?" Zuko asks.
"I hope you know you still have an obligation when we get back," Sokka says with a smirk. Zuko laughs wryly and stops walking. He pulls Sokka in close.
"You think I forgot about it for one minute? I'm not actually tired." Sokka grins and kisses him, touching his cheek. Zuko makes a small noise that turns Sokka's stomach into knots. With both hands, Sokka removes Zuko's headpiece, forcing his dark shoulder-length hair to fall. Sokka gets a handful of hair and tugs it gently. Zuko inhales sharply.
"Are you trying to make me do it here?" he asks. Sokka pulls again, a little harder, then lets go.
"No," Sokka says simply, "but I am gonna race you."
He takes off at full speed, Zuko close behind him. "You did that to slow me down!" Zuko yells at him. "It's not gonna work!" Sokka laughs and grips the headpiece and pin tightly in his hands. Zuko does eventually catch up to him. He grabs Sokka and pushes him onto the ground, effectively pinning him down. Sokka isn't complaining. They're both heaving, but Zuko still kisses him, making breathing even more difficult.
"I win," Zuko says, breaking the kiss. Sokka shakes his head.
"I already won."